With his unexpected apology for the Kurdish massacre of 1937, Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has opened the door to the darkest episodes in the country's history. The Dersim massacre, named after the place where it occurred, refers to the killing of nearly 14,000 Kurdish people to contain a rebellion that began soon after a 1935 law decreed ‘Turkification', the forcible assimilation of ethnic minorities. In this case, the flashpoint came when the name ‘Dersim' was changed to ‘Tunceli'. Referring to the incident, Mr. Erdogan said: “If it is necessary to apologise on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I will apologise, I am apologising.” His main objective was to embarrass the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which was in power at the time under a system of single-party rule established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He prefaced his statement of contrition with a challenge to the CHP leader to make the apology. He was also playing to the turmoil within the CHP, where some are calling on the party to face up to its past. For all the political point-scoring, Mr. Erdogan is the first Turkish leader to mention the incident and the word ‘apology' in the same breath. In this sense, it is historic. It also coincides with a government military offensive against the Kurdish rebel group PKK, the first in three years. Although the Erdogan government has made some linguistic and cultural concessions to the Kurdish minority, including starting a broadcast on state television in the once-banned Kurdish language, and reiterated a commitment to resolve the issue politically through talks with the Kurdish representatives, it is insistent that the PKK must first lay down arms.

In describing the Dersim incident as the “most tragic” in Turkey's recent history that should now be confronted “with courage,” Prime Minister Erdogan has unintentionally turned the spotlight on the 1915 massacre of Armenians, who say 1.5 million of them were killed in a genocide by the Ottoman regime that year. Turkey officially rejects the accusation, holding instead that up to half-a-million Armenians were killed, alongside a similar count of Turks, when they revolted against the Ottoman rulers during the First World War. Turkey's tough position on this is one of the obstacles to its entry into the European Union. The apology for Dersim is likely to spur fresh demands that Turkey show contrition for 1915 as well, although this seems unlikely. Beyond Turkey, there is a lesson in this for other nations: state injustice and brutality against a group or groups of people is not easily forgotten, not even in a hundred years.